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Indigenous people

New rehab law targets Australia's Aborigines

A new Australian state law is set to force problem drinkers into mandatory rehabilitation. The move, however, is being criticized for targeting indigenous Australians and for not tackling alcohol abuse issues properly.

Alice Springs is a town of 25,000 inhabitants, situated in the south of Australia's Northern Territory. It is surrounded by desert in every direction. But, despite its 300 days of sun each year, it has a dark side, too. It has a serious problem with alcohol.

More alcohol is consumed in Alice Springs than anywhere else in Australia, about double the national average. What's more, 60 percent of crimes here are related to alcohol.

"The Northern Territory, where Alice Springs is based, has quite high rates of alcohol use," explains Richard Chenhall, a medical anthropologist from the University of Melbourne. "If it was a country, we would rate just under Moldova. And Moldova is the number one drinking place in the world."

To combat the problems experienced here, the Northern Territory's Chief Minister, Adam Giles, has recently pushed for new laws on mandatory alcohol rehabilitation. The new regulations, brought in June, mean that those who refuse rehab could face criminal charges and potentially jail. It also permits the arrest of those drinking in public.

Aborigines targeted

Northern Territory Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Adam Giles
(c) EPA/NT GOVERNMENT

Giles: Last year saw 2500 cases of alcohol-related domestic violence

As the first ever Aboriginal leader of any state or territory in Australia, Giles knows all too well how negatively alcohol can affect Australia's indigenous population. In Alice Springs, indigenous people often drink on the street, largely because of alcohol laws which prevent them from drinking in their homes or townships. At the moment, many of them live in 16 camps outside of town.

There, only basic services exist, together with high levels of unemployment, violence, crime and alcohol abuse. To combat this problem, drinking in these town camps has been made illegal. But that hasn't solved the problem - instead, it has merely pushed indigenous alcoholics to drink in the city center of Alice Springs and other towns, experts say.

According to Russell Goldflam, president of the Northern Territory Criminal Lawyers Association, the new legislation is only going to be implemented in the larger towns. "There's no question that this legislation will disproportionately impact upon the indigenous population of the Northern Territory," Goldflam told DW.

"A lot of the rhetoric by government members in promoting this legislation was that this is about getting people off the streets. And I do think that it is part of the intent of this scheme."

Addicted, or criminal?

But, while the policy may help in making the streets of Alice Springs more peaceful, it doesn't necessarily solve the underlying problems.

Felicity Hayes washes at tap on Christmas morning at the Whitegate town camp in Alice Springs, 
(c) dpa

Aboriginal areas like Whitegate town camp only feature minimal services

The new mandatory rehab laws are already in place and the first indigenous alcoholics are being detained for treatment. The laws are being met by a broad range of reactions across Australian society. Even Australia's former Prime Minister Julia Gillard wrote a letter to Giles on the issue expressing her concern at developments. Aboriginal deaths in custody have historically been an issue in Australia.

The Australian Medical Association says it's wrong that addicted people can end up as criminals. But Chief Minister Adam Giles replies that the cost of not sending problem drinkers to mandatory rehabilitation is much greater.

Many human rights advocates fear that mandatory rehabilitation could increase the already high levels of indigenous incarceration in the Northern Territory. Despite making up only 30 percent of the population, 80 percent of adults and 95 percent of juveniles in detention are indigenous.

"The major concern with these legal provisions is that it's essentially a criminal justice approach to what is a very serious public health issue," says Ben Schokman who works for the Human Rights Law Centre in Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs.

"These are individuals who at the end of the day need better access to healthcare. Instead they're being placed in essentially prison-like facilities."

Different approaches, one goal

View of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

Some 25,000 people live in Alice Springs, around 20 percent are Aboriginal

The Northern Territory government is hoping that their mandatory rehabilitation plan will yield results. As the debate on its effectiveness continues, Chenhall from the University of Melbourne argues that it is only part of the solution. He says that the Northern Territory government needs to be taking a more holistic approach to combat indigenous alcoholism.

"I think you need a range of measures," he told DW. "Treatment is very important, but you also need to look at things like prices or the supply of alcohol. You need to start educating young people about the dangers it."

"You need a range of different things out there to cover all the bases," Chenhall said.

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